Zootopia is pure joy. This is a film with some amazing animation; a well-used voice cast; some extremely funny moments; and a great, well-paced story. In addition to being a successful animated film, Zootopia is a film with a message. Not a subtle message, and surprising to most film-goers, Zootopia tells a tale of diversity in the modern world and how the effort of inclusion is not always easy. Though the metaphorical society (different species= different races/cultures) can be a bit heavy handed at times, it never takes away from the entertainment of the film nor its messaging.
Directed by Byron Howard (Wreck-It Ralph) and Rich Moore (Tangled), along producers and story developers of Disney regulars (Frozen‘s Jennifer Lee, Wall-E‘s Jim Reardon), Zootopia continues the trend started by 2009’s amazing Princess and the Frog; the argument can be made that Disney Animation is the best animation studio working today. Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) is a young bunny with dreams of being a cop in the big city, Zootopia. This would be a feat, there has never been a bunny cop, law enforcement is filled with the bigger predator species in the city. It is Hopps’ optimism that drives the film, both in its plot and its inclusive subtext. Partnering with the sly fox Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), Hopps’ is given her first big case and she discovers some of the bigger problems in Zootopia’s society.
That is a pretty broad plot-synopsis, and there is no need to get into spoilers here. There is not a need to get into spoilers in order to talk about how great this film is. There are two dimensions to praise Zootopia on. First, there is the text of the film: Zootopia is a fun adventure film, with amazing jokes and animal puns to boot. Second, there is the subtext of the film: Zootopia comments on and teaches our kids the importance of accepting differences in a pluralistic society.
Though we are going to explore the film’s themes and subtext, I don’t want to lose sight of just how good the film is as a comedic adventure film. The world the filmmakers have created is just so much fun. Reminiscent of the world-building in Monsters Inc. and Wreck-It Ralph, Zootopia spends its opening explaining how the primitive animals of old have evolved into fully anthropomorphic society. Due to the wide variety of creatures that live in the city, Zootopia features so many different characters and environments and it is pure enjoyment watching the film.
Whether it is the weasel selling bootleg DVD’s, the hamster-sized entrances on the subway, or the pure absurdity of a polar bear wearing a gym suit, Zootopia is a film of pure creativity and the smile never left my face during its runtime. The animation on display here is top notch. With so many furry animals interacting with each other, it is amazing that the animators manage to give each creature its own specific feel.
Along with the beautiful animation and fun creativity, the screenplay by Jared Bush and Phil Johnston is great in its own right. As mentioned, there are tons of puns on display here, but the screenplay is funny and smart all-around. There are so many funny moments and lines in the film, some of which the children in the audience will not appreciate until later in their life. As an adventure film, the film is great. Hopps’ first big opportunity is a missing person case. The film successfully tells an investigative tale, though the mystery is just the skeleton of a film that seeks to tell a bigger story.
This brings us to the film’s subtext and the message Zootopia really wants to communicate. Yes, we have a story of a protagonist trying to make it in the big city, and yes, we have some very creative characters making some very funny jokes, but Zootopia has a bigger goal in mind. With world of primitive animals progressing past their old way of life (i.e. predator species feasting on prey species), we have a world in which different breeds and cultures have come to live together in one society.
It is not just one breed that is associated with a real-world correlation, each individual species and character faces their own prejudice (bunnies will never amount to anything other than carrot-farming, foxes are always sly/deceptive, predators are naturally more dangerous than other species).
Again, sometimes the film leaves little room for interpretation, there are scenes in which animals show prejudice to each other with distinctive racist language, but the heavy handedness usually works for Zootopia in that this message is so important. The film is not limited to commenting on racism though, it is bigotry of any kind and there isn’t one character that is perfect in their cultural interaction. Our protagonist has to teach the city folk how to appropriately interact with bunnies, but then she must learn about her own prejudice as well. Nick Wilde looks to have settled into his animal stereotype, but as the film goes on we learn about his life and the own prejudice he has faced.
To keep some perspective, all of this cultural commentary is paced with five minutes of a sloth approving a driver’s license in a very funny sequence. Point being, the film never loses sight of its overall message, but it never sacrifices the entertainment factor in doing so.
In thinking back on Zootopia, there is pressure to think about its commentary in the midst of an election year, but that would be limiting the film. Though it tells a timely message of equality, its message of inclusion is timeless and will be an amazing building block for children to learn from. Let us not lose track of how great the film is overall. The animation is stunning. The creativity is off the charts. The script is equal parts funny and thrilling. The voice cast is well utilized. Zootopia continues the high quality we have come to expect from Disney in recent years, while also setting a new standard of being a film with an important message.